The Symposium arranged by The Sub-Committee for the Elimination of Racism of the NGO Committee on Human Rights was entitled Global Movement Against Racism in Support of the Durban Review Conference. Norwegian ambassador Morten Wetland was contributing as a panelist. He underlined that even though the outcome of the original conference was not at all perfect, it was still arguably the most substantive anti-racism agenda concluded at the global level, thus being an important tool in the global struggle for human rights. Wetland shared experiences from Norway regarding racism in Norwegian society and the impact of the Doha Declaration and Programme of Action.
Norway's Remarks to the Symposium:
At the outset I would like to thank the Sub-Committee for the Elimination of Racism of the NGO Committee on Human Rights for organising this symposium.
I would also like to pay tribute to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, through her representative her today, for her clear leadership in the fight against racism.
Just before midnight on the 26th of January 2001 a fifteen year-old Norwegian boy called Benjamin Hermansen was knifed to death by neo-Nazis. Benjamin was the son of a Norwegian mother and a Ghanaian father. He was hanging out with a friend outside a shopping centre in the multi-ethnic suburb of Holmlia in Oslo, when two men jumped out of a car in front of them. Benjamin and his friend felt threatened and tried to run away. His friend escaped while Benjamin slipped on an icy street corner. He was stabbed to death where he fell.
Benjamin’s killers were convicted for racially motivated murder – the first convictions of their kind in Norway. Benjamin’s death sparked anti-racism demonstrations throughout Norway. The public outpouring of grief led to the largest political demonstrations in Norway since World War II. In Oslo more than 40,000 people turned up.
Eight months later the World Conference Against Racism convened in Durban. I can safely say that the public reaction to Benjamin’s death underscored the positive role civil society and the media can play in combating racism.
While the outcome of the original conference cannot be described as perfect, it is arguably the most substantive and far-reaching anti-racism agenda concluded at the global level.
Recognising the value of the agenda, Norway played a key role in the drafting of the compromise language on Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 2001 outcome document.
In the run-up to this year’s review conference Norway was elected to the bureau of the preparatory committee. In the last twelve months Norway has initiated cross-regional discussions on the new outcome document. Norway was, alongside diplomats from Belgium and Egypt, asked by the Russian head of the negotiations to take part in the editing the controversial draft outcome document. The slimmed down text was presented on the 17th of March.
We believe the text - as it now stands - is a good starting point for further negotiations. It has so far been very well received. High Commissioner Navi Pillay and the freedom of expression lobby group Article 19 are among those who have praised the new text.
Norway has not once threatened to pull out of the process. We firmly believe that engaging in a constructive dialogue is the way to move forward. By talking to all parties in the process we have fought to keep the emphasis firmly on fighting racism. We believe that disengagement could have thrown the process off track.
Norway has engaged in the process with five objectives in mind:
- The review conference is exactly what it says it is: a review of the Durban conference in 2001. It’s about the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and not new initiatives
- We cannot accept language in the outcome document on defamation of religions. Only individuals, not religions, are holders of human rights.
- The references to freedom of expression in the outcome document must not undermine internationally recognised standards as set out in articles 19 and 20 of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
- References to the role of the media must be as balanced as the 2001 text. We have to recognise the positive role of the media, while expressing concern that the media may also be used in ways that run counter to the fight against racism.
- We have worked tirelessly to remove all references to the conflict in the Middle East from the draft outcome document. Our primary aim is to have a document of universal application, not one that singles out particular situations or conflicts.
The draft outcome document – as it now stands – is in line with the five objectives. We have no guarantees that this will still hold true when the final rounds of negotiations have been concluded. Norway will not sign up to a document that falls short of these objectives.
In preparing my remarks I was asked to comment on whether the Durban agenda is making an impact on the global struggle for human rights. I would like to answer that question by focusing on the impact of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action has had, and continues to have, in Norway.
In 1962 Norway’s northernmost railway was opened, connecting a sparsely populated region with the cities in the south. A man of African descent was on the first train to reach the town of Bodø. The following day Norway’s leading newspaper carried a front page headline heralding that the first train had reached the north and that a black man had been travelling on it.
Why am I telling you this curious anecdote? While the US was in the midst of the civil rights movement, Norway was still an overwhelmingly homogeneous country. This has changed dramatically in recent decades. Starting from the 1970s, non-western immigrants have made a dent in the nearly all-white ethnic make-up of Norway. As the ethnic mix of Norway has changed - national, regional and local authorities have had to respond accordingly.
It is the clearly stated goal of the Norwegian Government that Norway should be an inclusive society, characterised by equal opportunities for all, regardless of background. Such lofty goals are rarely achieved without persistent policy commitment, legal frameworks and institutional reform.
In response to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action the Norwegian Government in 2002 launched a Plan of Action to Combat Racism and Discrimination. The plan applied to indigenous people, national minorities and the immigrant population in Norway. Building on the policy initiatives in the plan, Norway in 2006 established the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman, the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal and the Directorate of Integration and Diversity. An updated Anti-Discrimination Act came into force the same year.
Although the shocking death of fifteen year-old Benjamin reminds us that racist violence also exists in Norway, racism and related discrimination are more often expressed in subtler ways.
The Plan of Action thus focused not only on judicial protection and police services but on measures related to the labour market, health and other public services, the education sector, the Internet and local communities.
As Norway’s ethnic minority population has grown there has also been a growing realisation that our cradle to grave welfare services may not always be responsive to the needs of the new population. Norway’s first immigrants were mostly male and of working age. Not surprisingly the ethnic minority population is now spread out across the age spectrum. As a government, and indeed as a society, we have had to come to terms with this right from the maternity ward to the cemetery.
In essence the global struggle for human rights is about making sure that national governments protect the rights of its citizens. In Norway’s experience the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action provided added impetus to overhaul existing legislation and to beef up our institutional response to discrimination.